One of my first jobs was a voluntary carer that I did while a university student. I had drifted from engineering to social sciences, leaving behind any chance to earn big money, but chasing something that I found meaningful in other ways. Oh to be young and idealistic! While a strict Catholic upbringing had provided many virtues I struggled to find meaning and practical purpose within its gifts. I actually decided to give up my studies after first year after having my head turned by the cash of a summer working for I.B.M. but a kindly manager suggested quite firmly that I should go back to university in the autumn. Anyway I digress. I was about 18 or 19 years old when I volunteered at my local day centre for adults with quite severe learning disabilities. The work was a real eye opener for me. It was heavy on physical and personal care and not easy as a first experience of caring. It took me a bit of time to get used to the basic care tasks but as I emerged from this process I started to make connections with many of my service users. Most had a range of impairments – physical, sensory, communicative and many were quite institutionalised. On reflection there was plenty of autism about also although it was generally not recognised as distinct from learning disability. I did days from 9am till 3pm and it was most certainly a very significant experience. I had no idea of course that almost thirty years later I would be in the same position as the families whose loved ones attended the day care centre. I often worked on a one to one basis with some of the more “challenging” users of the service and I remember thinking how non stop it could be. The constant following around the centre and attempting to engage service users in “meaningful ” tasks while keeping them safe and meeting their physical needs also. We worked on a readiness model at that time with the goal always being about preparing people for some form of independence or semi independence. As an extremely fit young man I found the work very tiring at times and much to my embarrassment now I will admit that I often went to bed for a couple of hours when I got home. I can remember my mum waking me up from a deep sleep for my tea when I was looking for a breakfast! I thought I had it hard!! During my initial stint at the day centre I suppose I rarely thought too much about the parents of the people who attended the service. In subsequent years I was employed in the service and developed a better understanding of parents’ roles and the difficulties they faced supporting their children as best they possibly could. These days I get to live the role and tend to see these families in a completely different perspective. In hindsight my admiration for many of them is immense.

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